Oh yes, I am opening with this nerdy reference (no offence to DC fans though).

We all know it – each of the Avengers can do wonders on their own, but they accomplish so much more once they bond as a team.

Can you get your research group to work like Team Avengers?

Well, working styles vary widely across research groups, often influenced by rules set by the group’s principal investigator (PI) or lab head. Some prefer the lone soldier mode, with each student working independently on a research problem. Others stress on teamwork – a small crew assigned to every investigation.

In either case, the entire group could benefit tremendously if there is cohesiveness and a sense of belonging among the members. It encourages a sense of community where critiques are healthy, failures are supported and successes are cheered.

A recent NatureJobs post compiles some of the fun ways in which this is done by various successful researchers – outdoor activities, regular team lunches, informal quizzes and even cake-making contests! Such activities break down hierarchies, promote group bonding and provide an almost familial comfort.

I still remember my stint as a young intern at Murali Sastry‘s lab at National Chemical Laboratory, Pune (India) early in 2005. My task was to test an idea for chemically isolating magnetic nanoparticles. Sastry’s lab had more resources than I had ever seen up until then and was bustling with activity & bright grad students. As a total novice and outsider, I felt completely intimidated.

On my first day, at around 4 pm, Sastry walked into the chemistry lab and the entire group gathered around for tea – made by a grad student in the lab itself (a rotation system ensured that everyone got a chance to show off their tea-making skills). The group chatted about work and life. I gave an awkward introduction about myself and Sastry welcomed me by assigning a senior grad student as my mentor.

In the following weeks, I went on to learn more chemistry than I ever did in school. My work there also resulted in my first publication as a first author.

In hindsight, I realize that it was a very simple ritual – just evening tea with the group. But it was a powerful catalyst for the group to bond. It fostered an atmosphere of trust and co-operation. Just being a part of this group activity helped me (a very short-term member) to overcome my fears and hurdles during the project. I used all lab resources carefully and diligently. And I asked for help when in doubt or stuck.

Research is hard. And rarely successful when done in isolation. Building a group that supports each other through failures and successes is just as important (if not more) as the work itself. It takes time, effort and planning; one has to go beyond technical meetings and hurried emails. But those who have gone that extra mile can vouch for the benefits – both tangible and intangible.

Nick Fury didn’t have much time to establish a bonding ritual, a looming doomsday scenario forced the Avengers to initially work together. One could follow that approach. Or just get the group to practice having fun together. The Avengers saved the world from Ultron after they partied as a group.. Just saying!


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Posted by servingscienceblog

Hi! I'm Rajashree. Serving Science contains my weekly articles & musings on scientific news, concepts, research and pedagogy. If you'd like me to create scientific content for your organization or team, drop me an email.

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